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Kingship, Elective Monarchy and Masculinity in Poland-Lithuania, 1574–1733

Image showing painting of a KingThe Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth included territories found in modern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, but this vast state remains a marginal presence in even the most ambitious recent histories of early modern Europe. Dr Katarzyna Kosior’s Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship project is a comparative study of the representation and functioning of kingship as a masculine enterprise in the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The project focuses on three elected kings, namely Henry Valois (ruled 1574), Jan Sobieski (1674–1697), and August Wettin (1697–1733). This choice reflects their varied origins, respectively French, Polish and German, allowing comparative analysis of how their different cultural expectations and experiences shaped their embodiment of the role of Polish king and how this performance was received by the Polish nobility. The nobility was not only uniquely privileged politically with their right to elect their monarch, but also developed distinctive codes of masculinity based on the service to the Commonwealth as soldiers and officeholders. Their preference for eastern fashions and hairstyles was both a symbolic rejection of western absolutism and an outward expression of an enduringly martial masculinity against which the kings they elected were judged and often found wanting. Poland’s closest neighbours, politically and culturally, were the Habsburgs, the Ottomans and the Tatars, meaning that the embodied masculinity of Polish kingship was formed at the intersection of European and Asian ideas and fashions. For kings schooled in different cultural contexts, particularly those shaped by absolutist monarchy, effective kingship under the conditions of elective monarchy could prove particularly challenging. The Polish king was answerable to a group of men who represented themselves as orientalised, pious soldiers and statesmen and he had to embody these qualities to show that he was recognisably their king. However, he also had to be a worldly monarch, aware of how masculinity was codified at other European courts to avoid seeming the barbarian in diplomatic dealings and to impress the cosmopolitan tastes of the wealthiest Polish nobles.

In order to establish the extent to which kingly masculinity in Poland was an amalgam of global influences, this project makes comparisons with the kingship of France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. By exploring kingly masculinity as lived experience and representation in the context of the Polish-Lithuanian court and of family and internal and external relations, it sheds light on how the practice or performance of kingship was connected to different styles of court, governance and state.

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